The Bedrock of Ordinary Americans' Immigration View: Future Immigration Levels

By Stanley Renshon on August 20, 2014

In the last few entries, we have been exploring the fact that ordinary Americans hold basic, bedrock views on several subjects that that are cornerstones of the immigration debate – their views on the impact of large-scale immigration, as reflected in the numbers of the foreign-born in the population, and their views on illegal immigration.

The vehicle of our examination has been a large, sophisticated immigration survey, with an experiment design component embedded within it (for the experimental parts, different groups within the larger sample are given different question and the results compared), conducted by two very reputable political scientists.

Their assumption was that public overestimation of the numbers of foreign-born and of illegal immigrants in the United States fueled a sense of "threat", which led Americans to be less welcoming than they would be if they knew the real (that is, estimated) numbers of both groups in the population. That didn't work out; Americans held their ground in believing even the "real" numbers were too much.

This research paper examined one more set of questions in a new and potentially interesting way – those dealing with Americans' preferences for future levels of immigration.

That question is usually phased as follows: "In your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?"

It's hard to know what to make of the responses to a question worded like this since it seems to assume that Americans actually know the number of legal immigrants admitted to the country each year. That is doubtful, leaving aside the fact that the question appears to be referring to legal permanent residents (LPRs), who are not synonymous with the number of legal migrants admitted each year.

One obvious and legitimate way to understand the results, then, is to combine those who chose "stay as it is" and "decrease levels" to one group essentially saying: "No more."

Responses to this question have varied over the years, but within certain broad contours. A 2013 CBS/New York Times poll reported that 25 percent supported an increase, 35 percent wanted immigration kept at its present levels, and 31 percent wanted a decrease. (Q. 25) A more recent 2014 Gallup poll found that 22 percent wanted immigration increased, 33 percent wanted it kept at its present level, and 41 percent wanted it decreased.

That same Gallup poll contained this interesting observation on long-term immigration numbers:

Despite Americans' resistance to increasing immigration, the great majority continue to view immigration in positive terms for the country, with 63 percent calling it a good thing. That is down from 2013's high of 72 percent, but still exceeding the sub-60 percent readings found during the recent recession and, before that, in the wake of 9/11.

In short, support for immigration per se among Americans remains high even as support for deceasing immigration also remains strong. These data suggest that there is nothing inherently "anti-immigrant" or "nativist" in supporting lower immigration levels.

This is worth emphasizing when ugly smears like this – "Racism has been replaced with nativism in their demands for immigration restrictions, but the animosity toward the 'other' is the same" – tarnish the editorial pages of major national newspapers.

Next: The Bedrock of Ordinary Americans' Immigration Views: Future Immigration Levels, Pt. 2